It’s that time of year in Utah when hard facts can really mess things up.
Especially when it comes to that always-reliable whipping boy of the state Legislature: abortion. Last year, state Reps. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, scurried in committee to tinker with a bill that ended up banning all abortions in Utah. They later learned the effort would be astronomically expensive to defend in court.
This year, Sandstrom was poised to take another shot. Up until opening day, he was talking about running another bill to change the parental notification law for minors seeking an abortion. Current Utah law allows a minor to get an abortion without notifying her parents so long as a judge approves the decision. Since 2006, only eight teenagers have sought court approval for an abortion in Utah, and six of them were denied, according to the Planned Parenthood Action Council (the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood of Utah).
Leading into the 2008 session, however, Sandstrom changed his mind. He withdrew the bill. Pro-choice sources were guardedly optimistic. On Jan. 22, which happened to be the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision granting women a right to abortion, Planned Parenthood of Utah director Karrie Galloway told me, “I think it became clear that so few teens are using the court bypass (to avoid parental notification) that constitutional issues were raised. Rep. Sandstrom realized, I hope, that to ignore the Constitution was too great a price.”
It’s early to assume that some abortion bill won’t pop up. Something surfaces nearly every year, and it’s often of the stealth variety. Typically, when most lawmakers are busy with education, tax reform and the like, Utah’s morality ninjas find their moment and pounce with a measure they hope will eventually lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
But sometimes, facts get in the way.
In 2005, 3,200 women had abortions in Utah, according to the Utah Health Department. The average age of those women was 25, and 66 percent of them already had from one to—
“What that tells me is a lot of women in desperate straits are making this decision,” Galloway says. “They’re poor. They’re alone or in bad marriages. It’s not because they need to fit into a prom dress.”
Utah’s statistics on abortion mirror the rest of the country. Kids are not filling abortion clinics—here or anywhere else. The overall rate of abortions in the U.S. has been falling for seven years. And a new study released last week, drawing on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that fully half of the 1.2 million women who have abortions each year are 25 and older. According to the study, reported last week by the Associated Press, only 17 percent of abortions in 2005 were granted to minors.
It’s hard for most Utah legislators to get their arms around the fact that in America, abortion is overwhelmingly a choice of older women (over 25, that is), and 60 percent of those women have had least one child. So much for the quandary of the loveable teen hero in
Juno, weighing her tough options at the abortion clinic while a gum-popping receptionist wisecracks about raspberry-flavored condoms. It made for a terrific movie, but teen pregnancies are on the decline in the United States.
The real question, then, is why women who have already had at least one child would be in a position to consider an abortion. The same study also notes that a disproportionate number of women who have abortions are black and Latina. Only about 13 percent of women in America are black, according to the CDC, but they account for 35 percent of abortions.
Staggering. Pregnancy prevention through access to contraception is one solution. But it goes deeper. The higher abortion rate among older women and in minority populations has much to do with hard economic times and precious few educational opportunities. A woman with a steady income, a decent job and some education beyond high school is more likely able to live with an unplanned pregnancy. In spite of the emotional or financial stress that might accompany dealing with an “accident,” she more typically has the resources to handle a child.
So, in the real world, with real numbers to guide us, couldn’t we expect our Legislature to tackle some issues that give women real power and choice? Everyone in the abortion debate agrees there are better options in family planning. And in planning our lives. This session, lawmakers will again take up the matter of granting in-state college tuition to children of undocumented immigrants. If Latinas are disproportionately getting abortions, as the national study reports, might one small break toward them earning an education perhaps help shrink that number?
Poor women have a pretty poor pool of personal choices, and no more so than in their reproductive lives. It may be an empty exhale to implore our legislators to just once, ignore the moral dogma swirling around abortion and look at the facts. Look at who is getting abortions and, more importantly, why.